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July 2014
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September 2014

In the Company of All Who've Said Goodbye


When Dan and I found out, five months into my first pregnancy, that we were going to have twin sons, we were both pretty upset.  It wasn't just the Downs Syndrome false alarm that intially came along with the news of twins and it wasn't just the daunting prospect of having two babies when we weren't certain we could handle one.  Part of the problem was that they were boys.  For reasons I can't really remember or explain, Dan and I had long imagined parenting a daughter named Rosa (Dan had already picked out his daughter's name when I met him at 19, a fact that I found very endearing).  When we found out that we were becoming parents of two boys, we had to do some recalculating.

A few weeks after that surprising ultrasound, I had a dream that I was sitting at a big table, sharing a meal with a group of women I knew from various parts of my life.  There was Rita who was a member of the church I grew up in and Kate, one of my college chaplains, and others.  I don't remember much about what happened in the dream except that we were all gathered around that table, laughing and sharing a meal.  When I woke up, I realized that all of the women I dreamt about were the mothers of two sons.  I realized that I was joining a community of women who I loved and whose families I enjoyed.  It was deeply encouraging.

This dream has come back to mind as we send our two sons off to college.  All summer friends and family have been asking me how I'm feeling, offering sympathy and support.  It all seemed a bit unnecessary.  Paul and Isaac are going to amazing schools and I have no doubt that they are ready, academically and emotionally.  It has been exciting to read their course catalogues with them, to find out about their roommates and their housing.  If I've been feeling anything negative it is a bit of jealousy--I'd love to go back to college myself.

But then Isaac left and grief came and knocked me upside the head.  It seems incredible that their childhood is over.  Weren't they just born?  Didn't they just start Kindergarten?  I imagined myself running after the train yelling, "Wait a minute!  I'm not done yet!"  

I posted a note on Facebook, talked to a few friends, and within an hour, I was surrounded by people who had been where I was.  Some sent kids off to college last year, others said goodbye 40 years ago.  Some of them gave advice or made cheering comments about how we'll adjust to the new configuration of our family.  But what helped was the reminder that there is a community of people who have walked this path before.  When I sit among them, I feel stronger.

Human beings are hard-wired for community.  We're pack animals, and an aspect of this is that our emotional lives are deeply influenced by the people we're around.  We start laughing when we're around people who are laughing.  We're more likely to enjoy something when the people around us are having a great time too.  We catch anger and frustration from each other too as anyone who has had to wait in a long line knows.  Obviously, if we want to be happy, we should seek out happy people and avoid angry, negative people.

But grief seems to work differently.  We catch it from each other, certainly.  When we are near someone who tells the story of a loss and starts to cry, we find ourselves tearing up even if we didn't know the person they're grieving.  Having led dozens of funerals, I know that every loss reminds us of other loses.  We grieve not only the person who died but re-grieve all the other people we've ever loved and loss.

But somehow, sharing grief doesn't make it worse.  It makes it bearable.

Last week, we had to say an unexpected goodbye to a member of the Kittamaqundi Community.  Our community has the tradition of gathering at the church in the evening on the day that someone dies, just to be together.  We gather again, later, for a funeral or memorial service, but these immediate gatherings are informal, unscripted and raw.  Sometimes the family of the person who has died joins us and sometimes they don't.  Maryellen told her family about this practice before she died and urged them to go.  "You won't want to go," she told them, "but you'll be glad you did."

That's what happened, too.  They didn't want to go.  Their sadness was just too big to take out in public.  But when they came, when they sat in a room of people who were sad too, people who loved their mother and people who were remembering the sadness of losing their own mothers,  and they found there was a place for them.  Grief had its place too.  We offered it a chair and called it by name.  There was room for all of us.

Community in the Deep Down Dark

Rosa came home from her first day of tenth grade yesterday and told us that one of the first books she will read for English is "Lord of the Flies."  I was immediately flooded with memories--I also read the book in high school and it made a lasting impression.  The premise of the book is probably familiar:  a group of English school boys are shipwrecked on an island and have to fend for themselves for a while.  Bit by bit they abandon the niceties of civilization and revert to a more primitive social order where the strong prey on the weak.  The book is a parable that challenges readers to consider where compassion and cooperative human activity comes from.  Is it "natural"?  Or is it something that society imposes to control and contain our "real" nature?  

These questions weren't just theoretical to me as an adolescent--they felt deeply personal.  Would I do the right thing even if I wasn't required to do so?  If I was in charge of making the rules, what rules would I make (if any)?  Those are pretty adolescent questions but I still wonder about them.  I'm particularly fascinated by the attempts people have made over the years to find "test cases" where people have to create community on their own.  "Survivor" doesn't really count but the case of the trapped Chilean miners has a lot to teach us.

A little over four years ago, on August 22nd, 2010, the whole world cheered when a rescue team drilled into a collapsed mine in Chile and discovered all 33 men trapped in the mine were alive.  Do you remember watching?  The miners had been trapped for 17 days before they were discovered but it took almost 2 months of work to bring them to the surface.  There was so much goodness in the story of their rescue--international cooperation, the immense love and loyalty of the miners' families who camped out at the surface of the mine and the incredible fortitude of the miners themselves.  I was particularly captivated by the stories of the community the miners created underground.  They organized themselves, worked together and sustained each other.

Now, four years later, their story is in the news again.  First, there was a truly incredible World Cup ad featuring all 33 of the miners, standing together on the site where they had been buried four years prior.  The miners each scoop up some of the dirt at there feet and but it in metal containers as one minor explains that they are sending the dirt to the Chilean soccer team as a reminder of what Chileans can do.  "For a Chilean, nothing is impossible!" shouts the miner.  "We do not care about death!  Death has not beaten us before!"  You can see the video here.  It didn't enable Chile to win the World Cup, but it is really powerful.

A new book by journalist Hector Tobar tells a more complex story about the miners.  The book, entitled "Deep Down Dark:  The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle that Set Them Free" is due out in October but a lengthy excerpt was published in the New Yorker magazine back in July.  Yesterday, as I was running I listened to a stunning interview with Hector Tobar about the book, produced for the New Yorker's "Outloud" podcast.  Now I can't stop thinking about it.

According to Tobar, the miners organized quickly once they realized they were trapped.  They gathered in a designated safety room that had some limited food in a locked cabinet.  Although some men initially helped themselves to the food, the group quickly agreed to a strict rationing system--initially, one tablespoon of tuna and two cookies a day.  There was almost no conflict between the men during those first 17 days before the drill broke through.  Despite the fact that many of them were strangers to each other, they quickly developed a strong sense of solidarity. They sang the Chilean national anthem together.  No one fought, no one stole food, no one left the group.

After a couple of days, they started praying together.  One miner who was an evangelical Christian became the group's "chaplain".  He led them in prayer every day before they ate and told them stories from the Bible including the story of the prophet Jonah's captivity in the belly of a whale and the story of Jesus feeding thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish. 

Soon, these prayer gatherings became a time for men to apologize for things that had happened during the day and to ask for forgiveness from each other.  They apologized for snapping at each other, for not being more helpful.  Eventually, the men who had raided the food cabinet early on even confessed to the group and asked for their forgiveness.  

In the interview, Hector Tobar says, "That idea of bowing before God was definitely essential to their survival, especially for those first 17 days."  One miner who kept a diary through the whole experience was not at all religious prior to this experience.  He wrote that he had always thought of church as a place people go to expiate themselves of sin.  Religion, he thought, was for people who were worried about hell.  The prayer gatherings of the miners showed him that faith in God can be a source of strength.  It can give people the hope they need to sustain life.

Things started to change once the miners were discovered.  Rescuers sent down newspapers and letters from family members and the miners realized that they were famous.  They started to dream about the money they might receive for interviews and book contracts.  Soon they were arguing with each other about who should negotiate deals and who should act as a spokesman.  Once they received Mp3 players, a number of them stopped attending prayer services preferring instead to listen to music on their own.  The evangelicals and the Catholics started to argue with each other over some of the religious symbols the Catholics had received.  Their solidarity started to fall apart.

The story of the miners is almost the opposite of the one William Golding imagined in "Lord of the Flies".  When they were cut off from the world, the miners found the resources they needed to survive in their faith and in solidarity with each other.  It was the intervention of their rescuers--and the anticipation of what life after their rescue would be like--that divided them.